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Trump’s Legal Team Scrambles to Find an Argument


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On May 25, one among former President Donald J. Trump’s lawyers sent a letter to a top Justice Department official, laying out the argument that his client had done nothing illegal by holding onto a trove of presidency materials when he left the White House.

The letter, from M. Evan Corcoran, a former federal prosecutor, represented Mr. Trump’s initial defense against the investigation into the presence of highly classified documents in unsecured locations at his members-only club and residence, Mar-a-Lago. It amounted to a three-page hodgepodge of contested legal theories, including Mr. Corcoran’s assertion that Mr. Trump possessed a virtually boundless right as president to declassify materials and an argument that one law governing the handling of classified documents doesn’t apply to a president.

Mr. Corcoran asked the Justice Department to present the letter as “exculpatory” information to the grand jury investigating the case.

Government lawyers found it deeply puzzling. They included it within the affidavit submitted to a federal magistrate in Florida of their request for the search warrant they later used to get better much more classified materials at Mar-a-Lago — to show their willingness to acknowledge Mr. Corcoran’s arguments, an individual with knowledge of the choice said.

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Because the partial release of the search warrant affidavit on Friday, including the May 25 letter, illustrated, Mr. Trump goes into the battle over the documents with a rapidly assembled team. The lawyers have offered up quite a lot of arguments on his behalf which have yet to do much to fend off a Justice Department that has adopted a determined, focused and to date largely successful legal approach.

“He needs a quarterback who’s an actual lawyer,” said David I. Schoen, a lawyer who defended Mr. Trump in his second Senate impeachment trial. Mr. Schoen called it “an honor” to represent Mr. Trump, but said it was problematic to maintain lawyers “rotating out and in.”

Often tinged with Mr. Trump’s own bombast and sometimes conflating his powers as president together with his role as a non-public citizen, the legal arguments put forth by his team sometimes strike lawyers not involved within the case as more about setting a political narrative than about coping with the potential for a federal prosecution.

“There appears to be an enormous disconnect between what’s actually happening — an actual live court case surrounding an actual live investigation — and what they’re actually doing, which is treating it like they’ve treated all the pieces else, recklessly and thoughtlessly,” Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and F.B.I. official, said of Mr. Trump’s approach. “And for a mean defendant on a mean case, that might be a disaster.”

Mr. Trump’s team has had just a few small procedural wins. On Saturday, a federal judge in Florida signaled that she was inclined to support Mr. Trump’s request for a special master to review the fabric seized by the federal government within the search of Mar-a-Lago on Aug. 8.

It will not be clear how much the appointment of a special master would slow or complicate the federal government’s review of the fabric. Mr. Trump’s team has suggested that it will be a primary step toward difficult the validity of the search warrant; but it surely also gives the Justice Department, which is anticipated to reply this week, a chance to air recent details in public through their legal filings.

Takeaways From the Affidavit Utilized in the Mar-a-Lago Search

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Takeaways From the Affidavit Utilized in the Mar-a-Lago Search

The discharge on Aug. 26 of a partly redacted affidavit utilized by the Justice Department to justify its search of former President Donald J. Trump’s Florida residence included information that gives greater insight into the continuing investigation into how he handled documents he took with him from the White House. Listed here are the important thing takeaways:

Takeaways From the Affidavit Utilized in the Mar-a-Lago Search

The federal government tried to retrieve the documents for greater than a yr. The affidavit showed that the National Archives asked Mr. Trump as early as May 2021 for files that needed to be returned. In January, the agency was in a position to collect 15 boxes of documents. The affidavit included a letter from May 2022 showing that Trump’s lawyers knew that he may be in possession of classified materials and that the Justice Department was investigating the matter.

Takeaways From the Affidavit Utilized in the Mar-a-Lago Search

The fabric included highly classified documents. The F.B.I. said it had examined the 15 boxes Mr. Trump had returned to the National Archives in January and that all but one among them contained documents that were marked classified. The markings suggested that some documents could compromise human intelligence sources and that others were related to foreign intercepts collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Takeaways From the Affidavit Utilized in the Mar-a-Lago Search

Prosecutors are concerned about obstruction and witness intimidation. To acquire the search warrant, the Justice Department needed to lay out possible crimes to a judge, and obstruction of justice was amongst them. In a supporting document, the Justice Department said it had “well-founded concerns that steps could also be taken to frustrate or otherwise interfere with this investigation if facts within the affidavit were prematurely disclosed.”

Among the Trump lawyers’ efforts have also appeared ineffective or misdirected. Mr. Corcoran, in his May 25 letter, made much of Mr. Trump’s powers to declassify material as president, and cited a selected law on the handling of classified material that he said didn’t apply to a president. The search warrant, nonetheless, said federal agents can be in search of evidence of three potential crimes, none of which relied on the classification status of the documents found at Mar-a-Lago; the law on the handling of classified material cited by Mr. Corcoran within the letter was not amongst them.

Two lawyers who’re working with Mr. Trump on the documents case — Mr. Corcoran and Jim Trusty — have prosecutorial experience with the federal government. However the team was put together quickly.

Mr. Trusty was hired after Mr. Trump saw him on television, people near the previous president have said. Mr. Corcoran got here in in the course of the spring, introduced by one other Trump adviser during a conference call wherein Mr. Corcoran made clear he was willing to tackle a case that lots of Mr. Trump’s other advisers were in search of to avoid, people briefed on the discussion said.

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How do the sources know the knowledge? What’s their motivation for telling us? Have they proved reliable previously? Can we corroborate the knowledge? Even with these questions satisfied, The Times uses anonymous sources as a final resort. The reporter and no less than one editor know the identity of the source.

Mr. Trump’s allies have reached out to several other lawyers, but have repeatedly been turned down.

Mr. Corcoran specifically has raised eyebrows inside the Justice Department for his statements to federal officials in the course of the documents investigation. People briefed on the investigation say officials are uncertain whether Mr. Corcoran was intentionally evasive, or just unaware of all the fabric still kept at Mar-a-Lago and located in the course of the Aug. 8 search by the F.B.I.

Mr. Corcoran didn’t reply to a request for comment. Taylor Budowich, a spokesman for Mr. Trump, said only that Mr. Trump and his legal team “proceed to say his rights and expose the Biden administration’s misuse of the Presidential Records Act, which governs all pertinent facts, has been complied with and has no enforcement mechanism.”

Even before Mr. Corcoran joined the team, Mr. Trump’s legal filings in various cases read like campaign rally speeches that he had dictated to his lawyers. The previous president has a history of approaching legal proceedings as in the event that they are political conflicts, wherein his best defense is the 74 million individuals who voted for him within the 2020 election.

The closest thing to a legal quarterback in Mr. Trump’s orbit is Boris Epshteyn, a onetime lawyer on the firm Milbank who was a political adviser to Mr. Trump in 2016, ultimately becoming a senior staff member on his inaugural effort after which a strategic adviser on the 2020 campaign.

Mr. Epshteyn has championed Mr. Trump’s claims, dismissed by dozens of courts, that the election was stolen from him, and has risen to a job he has described to colleagues as an “in-house counsel,” helping to assemble Mr. Trump’s current legal team.

Mr. Trump’s advisers proceed to insist that he was cooperating before the search in returning the documents. They’ve also suggested that they were quick to reply to Justice Department concerns, citing what they described as a request in June that a stronger lock be placed on the door resulting in the storage area where several boxes of presidential records had been kept.

Yet the unsealed affidavit showed a portion of a letter from a Justice Department lawyer sent to Mr. Trump’s lawyers that didn’t specify anything a few lock and skim less like a request than a warning.

The classified documents taken from the White House “haven’t been handled in an appropriate manner or stored in an appropriate location,” the letter read. “Accordingly, we ask that the room at Mar-a-Lago where the documents had been stored be secured and that each one of the boxes that were moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago (together with every other items in that room) be preserved in that room of their current condition until further notice.”

In the course of the Aug. 8 search, the F.B.I. found additional documents in that area and in addition on the ground of a closet in Mr. Trump’s office, people briefed on the matter said.

Mr. Trump and a small circle inside his group of current advisers maintain that he was entitled to maintain documents he took from the White House, or that he had already declassified them, or that they were packed up and moved by the General Services Administration — an assertion flatly denied by that federal agency.

Mr. Trump, people aware of his pondering say, sees the attorney general, Merrick B. Garland, not because the federal government’s chief law enforcement officer, but merely as a political foe and someone with whom he can haggle with about how much anger exists over the situation.

Shortly before Mr. Garland announced that he was in search of to unseal the search warrant, an intermediary for Mr. Trump reached out to a Justice Department official to pass along a message that the previous president wanted to barter, as if he were still a Recent York developer.

The message Mr. Trump wanted conveyed, in keeping with an individual aware of the exchange, was: “The country is on fire. What can I do to cut back the warmth?”

A Justice Department spokesman wouldn’t say if the message ever made it as much as Mr. Garland; however the senior leadership was befuddled by the message, and had no idea what Mr. Trump was trying to perform, in keeping with an official.

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